After a couple of weeks of attempting to make sense of Japan, I've come to a decision. I can't do it. Even two, three weeks on, my senses are reeling from the experience and, without the photos to prove it all happened, I'd be pinching myself and wondering if I'd imagined it.
Last week, I caught up with our host Mr Hama at So and he asked the inevitable question: what had been my favourite meal? I couldn't pick one then, and I couldn't pick one now. As tempting as it is to say the noodles previously blogged - and there was a wonderful purity to that meal - it would seem a little ungrateful after the amount of care and craft that went into our other dining experiences. Somewhat inevitably, when places have visiting journalists to impress, they tend to go overboard. In Japan, this translates to the "kaiseki" meal, a tasting menu of seven, eight, or more, courses. According to Mr Hama, the average Japanese person would maybe have one such meal in a year. Less is also likely: our young waiter at So last week had never had one. We did - ahem - five in three days.
At the time, these passed with a blur and it became difficult to tell them apart in my memory. Some were certainly challenging - the main difference between Japanese and Western cuisines would be one of texture - some were instantly forgettable but others dazzled. In all cases, it's still taken weeks of note reading and photo browsing to get my head around the flavours. And, in many cases, the mouth feel.
I had planned to combine the meals into one post, a sort of "Best Of", but that was shaping up to be of novel length. Instead then,. it's going to have to be a series of day-by-day / meal-by-meal dissections starting with Charyu Ichimatsu.
Surrounded by a roofed mud wall and pretty garden Charyu Ichimatsu is a "ryotei" restaurant which, if I've got my notes right, is a series of private dining rooms. A trio of kimono-clad servers presented dish after dish with incredible precision and ceremony. While some such menus would leave you reeling, clutching at your belt and vowing never to eat again, the kaiseki approach is food as fuel in the best possible sense with small dishes of intense, and often unusual flavours.
To start, a "frozen" dish of smoked salmon, daikon and apple. The quotation marks are present because the icy finish here is actually rice powder that's been frozen and dessicated. It's a delicate start but one that leaves you smiling
Sashimi - sea bass, yellow tail and prawn - is an achingly pretty plateful. A scallop appears, barely cooked and encased in the lightest of batters. It's creamy and rich although it's also our first experience (of several) of the slightly gelatinous sauces that will feature over the next few days.
Next comes a piece of mackerel - grilled, delicious - a sea snail - dense, chewy, surprisingly / alarmingly huge - and, slightly bizarrely, a chessboard design of sharon fruit and cheese. While visually appealing, it's not the best plate of food of the week. Nor is the next dish which can only really be described as fish custard. We think (or hope) it's roe (the translation isn't clear so all we know is it comes from somewhere around the groin) in something that resembles creme caramel, topped with enoki mushroom and a thin layer of fish stock. "Challenge" doesn't really cover it: this is a dish way outside my comfort zone and one that makes me very aware that I've now been awake for 24 hours. Amazingly the palate adjusts quickly - watch this space - but at this point, this is a difficult mouthful.
After that, however, it's relatively plain sailing with rice - simple, perfect and further reinforcing how badly I cook rice - miso and pickles, and a fruit-topped almond tofu pudding that, to this slightly knackered traveller, is a far more enjoyable bridge between the cultures. Coming next: dinner at Sushi Koma. Which, after 30 hours without sleep, is about as apt a name as you're ever going to find...